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Review: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

The film’s highly calculated beauty suffocates rather than elevates the story’s emotional underpinnings.

2.5

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Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Photo: IFC Films

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a slow-burning romance engineered to appear as if it were a lost relic of American cinema. Opening with an introductory title card that reads “This Was in Texas,” this quasi-western establishes from the start its fondness for a bygone Americana and period of filmmaking, and the results are at once striking and dubious. The story, set during the ’70s, introduces childhood sweethearts and young outlaws Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) as they bicker and sweetly make up—a scene that culminates with Ruth’s disclosure that she’s pregnant. Following a series of armed robberies they commit, though, they’re caught in a police shootout at their homely shack on a hill. During the blitzkrieg of exchanging bullets, an accomplice is shot dead and Ruth wounds an officer, but Bob takes the blame, with one echoing stipulation for the mother of his unborn child: “Just wait for me.”

Years pass following Bob’s 25-to-life sentencing and incarceration, along with a trail of soulful, voiceover-ready missives from Bob’s jail cell to Ruth’s house. As their cherubic daughter Sylvie’s fourth birthday approaches, however, Ruth receives news from the sheriff she shot, the exceedingly humble Patrick (Ben Foster), that Bob has escaped. From there, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints splinters into a rather bifurcated narrative of the star-crossed couple, following Bob’s manhunt-baiting journey home and the increasingly maternal Ruth’s precarious predicament, which pits love against peacefulness and loyalty against protection.

Director David Lowery, with the aide of Bradford Young’s sublime cinematography, goes to great lengths to stylistically evoke the emotionally complex nature of the characters’ forlornness, but the film’s highly calculated beauty suffocates rather than elevates the story’s emotional underpinnings. There’s a sense of the couple’s romantic yearning that pervades throughout, and yet the film doesn’t entirely satisfy as a mood piece; the characters feel unequivocal and their emotions perpetually telegraphed, robbing the audience of a sense of discovery, of truly experiencing their emotions for ourselves. A film can wear its heart on its sleeve without constantly pointing at it. Like the hopelessly romantic Bob, Lowery loads the film with all the idealized romanticism of an ostentatious, twangy poem without pausing to understand when a more relaxed approach would be more sincere.

More problematic is the overly pure and precious depiction of motherhood. Ruth and Sylvie rescue a box of stray kittens together, and the young mother, a conflicted victim of circumstance who listlessly awaits and fears Bob’s possible return, innocently and frequently flirts with Patrick after he confesses his affection for her, ratcheting up the dramatic irony of their burgeoning intimacy. After celebrating Sylvie’s birthday, Ruth explains to Patrick that the police reports that stated she was uninvolved with Bob’s crimes were delicately fabricated, and that perhaps she “knew what she was doing.” This admission, though truthful to the character as we first come to understand her in the film, seems like a halfhearted means for Lowery to give dimension to a character that’s uninterestingly flattened into a waiting damsel in distress. Patrick’s response to Ruth is, of course, “When I see you with your daughter, all I see is good,” hammering home Lowery’s notion of Ruth as a quintessential force of benevolence, a woman miraculously redeemed by fulfilling her role as a mother.

From its minimalist fiddle-friendly soundtrack and auburn-colored visual palette to its idiomatic title, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints aims to exude a folksy poeticism reminiscent of the elliptical style of Terrence Malick, Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, and even Paul Thomas Anderson. Lowery has spoken in interviews of these highly influential predecessors, and his second feature is a well-studied work of picturesque cinema. However, there’s a confidence in the film that’s more grounded in familiarity than singularity: Lowery riffs on other filmmakers’ aesthetics instead of developing his own organic, unique vision. Make no mistake, this is a finely postured, technically proficient marvel, one that delicately collates and balances the excellent work of its collaborators (including Young, composer Daniel Hart, its suitably solemn cast), but for all its earnest dialogue and lens flare-filled diorama of Texan landscapes, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is damned by its overly laminated rigorousness.

Cast: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, David Carradine, Nate Parker, Rami Malek Director: David Lowery Screenwriter: David Lowery Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2013 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

3

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Invisibles Is an Awkward Combination of Fiction and Documentary

The film doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide.

2

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The Invisibles
Photo: Menemsha Films

If Schindler’s List and Shoah represent the opposite ends of a spectrum for cinematic representation of the Holocaust, The Invisibles is at the perfect midpoint between those two extremes, combining intimate interviews with cleanly composed, tightly controlled reenactments of the events discussed therein. But in seeking the precise middle ground between the dreadful beauty of Steven Spielberg’s historical melodrama and Claude Lanzmann’s radical privileging of personal testimony over visual representation of suffering, The Invisibles finds a mediated position that’s also decidedly middle-brow.

The basis of director and co-writer Claus Räfle’s film is archival interviews with Holocaust survivors Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, and Hanni Lévy, four of the 7,000 Jewish Berliners who hid within the city even after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared it “free of Jews” in 1943. Sheltered by friends, shepherded between members of the limited communist resistance, and in Cioma’s case, maintained in the basement of the Afghan embassy by a network of document forgers, all four managed not only to evade the mass deportations to death camps in Poland, but also to survive the Allies’ incessant late-war bombings of Berlin and the devastating siege of the city that brought an end to the war.

Complementing the subjects’ verbal accounts of their experiences are dramatic reenactments of their lives as “invisibles” in a hostile and dangerous city. Cioma (Max Mauff) is a talented young artist who escapes deportation with his aged parents by forging documents verifying that he’s needed in Berlin as a laborer, eventually managing to eke out a black-market salary from the forgery business. Because his stepfather is a gentile, Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is afforded a bit more time to find a place to hide, ending up masquerading as a cousin to a family of secret Nazi opponents—even occasionally donning a Nazi uniform as part of the act. Ruth and her brother huddle for months with their respective significant others in a single room. And Hanni hides mostly in the open, dying her hair blond and spending her time in the populated commercial area around the famed Kurfürstendamm boulevard.

The four individuals didn’t know each other, and while their stories correspond in certain ways—Ruth and Hanni both adopt disguises, using the omnipresence of mourning women in Berlin to their advantage, whereas Eugen and Cioma must either hide completely or come up with reasons for why they haven’t been called into service—Räfle and co-writer Alejandra López resist staging an arbitrary intersection of the subjects’ lives. While they’re all in the same city, they’re totally isolated, from their families as well as from other young Jews like themselves. “I thought I was the only one,” the real-life Hanni explains as she recounts discovering that 1,500 other young German Jews survived the war in Berlin.

Through its subjects, The Invisibles tells us much about the precarious conditions that they endured during the war, but the staged reenactments show us little that these individuals’ words haven’t already captured. The short bits of drama that Räfle and López compose out of their subjects’ testimony have a cable-documentary quality, both in terms of the excessively neat, stagy sets and the simplicity of the correspondence between the real survivors’ narration and the action depicted. The narrative loosely assembled there has affecting moments—particularly the finale to Ruth’s ordeal, which features a tense confrontation with a Russian soldier—but it never develops its own unique insights or personality.

Missing from the narrativized sections of the film is also a strong sense of environment. We see the cramped corners that the four young people must hide themselves in, but the film is limited in its ability to convey a sense of what Germany’s capital city was like under the constant bombardment that brought an end to the war. Bombings are mentioned but never depicted, except in intermittently deployed archival footage. The Battle of Berlin, when Soviet forces sieged the city and effectively ended World War II, is largely depicted through allusion. The absence of a palpable representation of these events, and of a sense of the city as a whole, is enough to make one wish that the film had simply stuck with the interviews.

The Invisibles’s combination of documentary footage with dramatic conventions doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide. The result isn’t a film that manages to craft out of its staged portions a meaningful and evocative portrait of life lived under the constant threat of death, nor one that, like Shoah, gives itself over fully to the harrowing stories of survivors.

Cast: Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, Hanni Lévy, Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras Director: Claus Räfle Screenwriter: Claus Räfle, Alejandra López Distributor: Menemsha Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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